In Mary Gordon’s Shadow

A year or so ago, I read Mary Gordon’s memoir The Shadow Man. I felt an immediate kinship with Mary because her book is about searching for her father’s past.

The Shadow Man

Before I’d read Gordon’s book, Bernard Cooper’s memoir about his father exploded what I had been told about memoir structure, showing me it is possible to deviate from chronology, to use flashbacks, and to merge the past with the present. Gordon’s story struck me as similar to my own because we share a similar problem: that our story is really about the process we went through to learn about the pasts of our families. When I finished The Shadow Man, I realized that now I had another memoir to add to Cooper’s memoir and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club to serve as models for me.

Mary Gordon actually spends a fair amount of time detailing her research in the library and in contacting strangers. The reader gets to participate in the research process. This is like following Nancy Drew’s progress in solving a mystery–albeit without the imprisonment in the cistern, tarantula/black widow spider, etc.

While Gordon’s book focuses on the actual research process, my research will be more of a framework with more stories from the past and present. However, this book was eye-opening to me because writing teachers say you have to put everything into action and that doing research, reading letters, etc. are not active enough–that these moments of small epiphanies have to be put into scene. It’s not always possible to put into scene because if the scene didn’t occur the writer can’t make it up as it’s not fiction!

The twist in Gordon’s book is that Mary Gordon was raised Catholic by her parents, although her father was born Jewish. But he had become a (IMO dangerous) anti-Semite and this made Gordon’s search for his past–and really the man himself as he had died while she was so young–a very complicated emotional ordeal.

Let me say that Mary Gordon’s book is gorgeously written. Maybe this heavy reliance on process wouldn’t work in the hands of a lesser writer, but it really works here. Will you enjoy the book? I’m not sure. It depends on the type of books you like. I think someone like me who is curious about family history, 20th century history, family relations, and beautiful, almost lyrical, writing will love it.


Maybe you’ve read one or more of Mary Gordon’s other books? Check out her website.



Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

38 responses to “In Mary Gordon’s Shadow

  1. I’ve just added it to my Amazon list. I’ve read several of her books, and I’ve loved them.
    (Not as much as Mary Karr’s memoirs, but still…)

  2. Thanks for the review — I’m intrigued.

  3. Excellent review…it’s interesting to know how many people are doing research into their families and family history…do you think it’s because we all feel so disconnected since we rely more on social media than personal interaction? Just wondering…not sure.

    • Sheila, it’s possible. Also, it’s so much easier to do so today. So much information at our fingertips. Or like on my other blog where people drop by and give me info I never dreamed I would get my hands on–like the Seattle scrapbook, etc. But it could be a way of making connections that we need to ground ourselves and our identities in a teeming frothy stormy ocean of a world. (Sorry, I couldn’t help it once I saw it that way 😉 heh).

  4. Luanne, I have read some books by Mary Gordon. I remember really liking her work. In visual art, you have to be a very skilled artist to break the rules. And it sounds like this is what Gordon has done here, in what is a memoir. It sounds good.

    The point about her father’s past being difficult to excavate, rings true with my husband’s now deceased parents. Neither one of them spoke about their past. Some amazing secrets were unearthed when we got in touch with his aunt. That my husband is part Jewish was a total shock. Thanks for the good post. It was a review that was well written and very interesting to me!

    • Hollis, what a fabulous point. It’s so true. First you learn the rules and how to follow them, then you can figure out new ways to break them (if you’ve attained that level of skill)! Personally, silly rules bug me, so I am always angling for a way to break them in a “legit” way hahaha. Like when a designer told me you have to group things in 3s in a room. Hah, sure, if I want my house to look like an unlived in hotel room.

  5. The more I read your posts, the more I realize writing a memoir is tough! I think I’ll stick with fiction, Luanne. 🙂
    Thanks again for a terrific review!

    • Thanks, Jill!!! Oh man, it is SO hard! I can’t speak for all genres and types of fiction, but compared with writing a fictional short story (which I can speak to as I used to do it), it’s insanely difficult. Thank you for letting me say that!

  6. Hi-ho to the library I go for this one.

  7. I find it amazing how little we know about our families and their history. Passing down family knowledge seems to have been lost in our modern society and it’s great to see people actually searching for information. This sounds like my kind of book, Luanne 😀

    • Dianne, that is exactly what I think to myself a lot! How is it that we grow up with people and only hear the same 3 or 4 stories and for the most part we know almost nothing about their upbringings, what their parents were like as people and as parents, and even dramatic events. Gordon really does a wonderful job exploring the life of a man she only knew in part.

  8. This sounds like a really interesting structure to me – I think I would like it!

    • One thing about this book is that it’s not a very active story in the sense of physical movement, but boy is it rich in uncovering what the man’s life was like. Also interesting that her father was a writer, too, so she had written material she could research.

  9. Kim

    I love nonfiction books so thank you for telling me about this one. It looks very interesting. I hope my library has t!!!

    • Kim, I hope so, too. Come back and let me know what you think after you read it! (Love the kitty pic!)
      I saw that you have written posts about UCR–does your daughter go there? I went there for grad school from 90-93. They had no parking then either, but with the new buildings, it must be worse.

  10. My reading list keeps growing, Luanne. I love how you explore the structure of her book and how you compare it to the work you are doing in your memoir.

    • These books are so helpful to see how many ways there are to structure and style a memoir. Just finished one last night that does yet more unique “stuff.” 😉

  11. Writing is not a paint by number or a one size fits all endeavor. Jo Robinson recently wrote a fabulous post on why we shouldn’t follow the musts, shoulds and have to do.
    Good writing expresses your unique self and that also includes your style. If we were to follow all the “rules” then every writing would read the same and lack originality. We can’t always be showing, even in fiction, and Mary Gordon’s book is a great example of why not.

    • Carol, what a wonderful analogy: “Writing is not a paint by number or one size fits all endeavor.” I love that–and so so true. Maybe that’s why that one memoir I reviewed that I couldn’t remember very well was so “forgettable” to me–it followed the rule (almost formulaically) and was too much like too many other books. Thanks for the link! I will add that it’s good to know those rules first–like the no adverbs–so that when we break them we know why we are breaking them. If we’re going to leave in an adverb, we need to know why it’s important and why the verb can’t be strengthened, etc. So I would be one of the last people to say don’t worry about writing rules at all. It’s like Hollis above says, that to break the rules one needs to be a skilled artist. A lot of people break the rules without sufficiently learning why the rules are in place–or even that they exist. But one of my pet peeves are writing instructors and other “officials of writing” 😉 who don’t realize the difference between the writer who knows why he is breaking a rule and for good reason and the writer who just hasn’t learned the rule yet.

  12. Luanne, you give this book high praise in the lyrical way she uses words and her framework of the search for her father’s past. I think this sound very nicely presented and a great source to study! I would enjoy this, since it has an unusual theme of religion, where the person’s (father’s) path has changed during the course of his life. Thanks for this suggestion, Luanne! You are going to do an excellent job in your own memoir!

    • The theme of religion in the book is even more interesting in that I believe that Mary Gordon is a dedicated Catholic who writes about religion.
      Thanks for the vote of confidence, Robin! The closer I get, the more scenes I realize I still need to write. I already have enough material for two books ;).

      • Maybe it will be a two part series, Book One and Book Two, Luanne! I am amazed and excited that you have accomplished so much with your writing your family’s history. Thank you also for informing me about Mary’s dedication to her Catholic religion. I think it is nice to believe that all religions can be accepted and universally respected. You are most welcome for my vote of confidence, Luanne.

  13. Another one to put on my list 😉 I’ll be interested to see how Gordon researches her father’s past. I’ve always been curious about my father’s past. For many and unintentional reasons I have no ties with anyone from my father’s side of the family. And given that his family was dirt poor presents another challenge. I probably will unearth very little through research, but I guess it’s the telling of any story, of a search for one’s parent, done in an unorthodox way, that intrigues me. Thanks for the review, Luanne!

    • Me too!! (re the search for the parent) Fascinating. And todays’ memoir review is something similar. Helen Fremont searches for her parents’ secrets from their pasts. So gripping to read this stuff.
      Do you think that the family’s poverty added to the difficulties because there weren’t photographs, they didn’t tend to show up in newspapers, and because the children might have been “farmed out” to others?

  14. Thanks for sharing her website Luanne I will check it out as I do not read many memoirs but she sounds intriguing. Thank you it is good for a person to stretch her writing selection me thinks. You always recommend something interesting to read. Kath.

    • Thanks so much, Kath. I read so many good books and always feel like I am missing so many because, alas, I am one person 😉 (which is what I used to tell my kids when they were little).

  15. Luanne, I worked in a bookstore during college and had one summer of practically perfect reading–I remember it as a golden time! One of the books that thoroughly resonated was Gordon’s Final Payments; interesting look at Catholicism in that volume! I didn’t always have the same positive reaction to her later books, but I’m putting her memoir on my list–it sounds great. I have been playing with the concept of same event—different memories in a family setting… As you plan/write your memoir, do you worry about the reactions of others who were there??? (Sorry if that’s a nosy question!)

    • Pam, how interesting! What is it you don’t like about the other books? Is Final Payments a novel? Does her view of Catholicism change over time throughout her books?
      Ugh, reactions, yes. I SO worry about it. I am trying not to let it stop me, so I trick myself by saying, just get it done and sit on it, stuff like that.

  16. Oh Luanne, the more I read here in your posts about memoir writing the more I come to understand why I go through the things I do in writing my own. The story I’m telling touches on my father in parts that are relevant but it isn’t about him. Yet, I’ve found that I’ve written in flashback form as I’ve resurrected certain events from my earlier childhood as I’ve realised that they need to slot in with the story I’m really telling. But as with Gordon, I have this need to know more about my father’s past (he is 82, a life-long alcoholic and in prison believe it or not) and although I’ve tried to ask him about his childhood, he is vague and evasive. Shadow Man sounds absolutely fascinating is now also on my list…at this rate I’ll never get my memoir written but I have this insatiable need to know more and I want to thank you for all you are ‘feeding’ me with 🙂

    • Yes, you have brick walls to break through in trying to find answers, Sherri. Thank you for sharing about your father. This will be rewarding, but so difficult, both the doing of it and the emotional aspect. With a father like that, if you haven’t yet read the memoirs by the Wolff brothers (Tobias and Gregory) and the one by Nick Flynn (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City), I would. I think they would be helpful for you. But note that those are all books by men about their fathers. Wow, we ought to pull together a list of memoirs about writers searching for their parents or their parents’ stories/pasts!!

  17. Pingback: The Stories We Tell | An analysis of Mary Gordon’s “The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father” | Write on the World

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